BACK-OF-THE-FIELD athletes who once were welcomed into the cold fraternity of the Winter Games now are being told not to bother packing their long johns unless they can meet new qualifying standards.
Concerned that the Olympics might become overrun and cheapened by what some call ``tourist athletes,'' the Olympics have tightened the screening process since the 1992 Winter Games in Albertville, France.
The new direction, while not readily apparent to casual viewers, threatens to change the very nature of the Olympics, some say.
Julian Munoz, a Costa Rican skier at the 1988 and 1992 Winter Games, counts himself among them. ``Until now, the Olympics have been a very open international event,'' he says. ``What the International Olympic Committee has done is make it less than that and made it into a glorified World Cup event,'' a reference to the season-long circuits established for elite-level competition.
Munoz, who works for the Costa Rican consulate in San Francisco and has an architectural degree from the University of California, Berkeley, has been something of a one-man crusade against the trend away from Olympic openness.
Munoz corresponded with Olympic officials and shared his concerns in letters to the Monitor before the Winter Games got under way in Lillehammer, Norway.
Munoz says that a special dimension of the Olympics lies in the camaraderie among the athletes from the many participating nations. ``Ask any athlete,'' he says, ``and this fact remains almost more important than the competitions themselves.''
He points out a grand gesture made by Alpine skier Alberto Tomba as an example of this spirit of togetherness. After Olympic victories in the 1988 slalom and giant slalom races, the Italian superstar hoisted the last-place finisher on his shoulders, which in each case was one of Munoz's Costa Rican teammates.